At a Trump protest I saw a sign that I will never forget: “There’s only one minority destroying America – The Rich”. It’s a statement that’s hard to argue with, and I can’t think of a movie that illustrates this idea more memorably than Mary Harron’s American Psycho. I must confess I was surprised to discover that this movie was directed by a woman (as was Bret Easton Ellis, the author of the novel, but the less said about him the better). Upon a rewatch, I am beyond grateful that a female director helmed this adaptation; the second choice was Oliver Stone, and I cringe thinking about what that would look like. Harron took a book written by a misogynist, and turned it into a savage satire of toxic masculinity, white male privilege, and greed.
Christian Bale plays Patrick Bateman, a rich investment banker working in Manhattan. He keeps an obsessively clean apartment and office, has an encyclopedic knowledge of music, and murders people for fun. Bale is one of our finest actors, and I think this is my favourite performance of his. He portrays every facet of Bateman – jealousy, pride, self-hatred, obsessiveness – and dials them up 50%, resulting in a larger than life performance that, miraculously, always remains believable. Harron too, heightens the world of American Psycho enough to be satire, but never parody. This enables the film to turn on a dime, from a laugh out loud sequence involving business card one-upmanship, to a truly repellent scene where Bateman offers a homeless man money, before viciously ending his life, and the life of his dog.
This brings us to the detractors, of both the book and the film. Having never read the book, I can’t speak to them, but as a huge fan of the movie, I will make an argument for its value. Like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Pulp Fiction, this movie has been condemned by some as gratuitously violent. But also like those two films, surprisingly little violence is actually seen – the average Bond movie contains more on screen deaths. I would argue that American Psycho is not a movie that glamorizes any of the violence it portrays. Martin Scorsese has often been accused of glorifying bad behaviour (Goodfellas and The Wolf of Wall Street are the most frequently cited examples) but Scorsese and Harron understand that the only way to truly examine evil, and why people do evil things, is to get inside the mind of a bad person. They also understand that sometimes bad people win.
The election of Donald Trump hurt in ways I don’t think I’ll ever fully understand. To watch helplessly as this grotesque personification of America’s worst qualities rose to the position of President of the United States just felt so completely and utterly wrong. I’ve always known to some degree or another that the rich run the world, but seeing how horribly this can go off the rails shook me to the core. This is the crux of American Psycho. The violence isn’t that graphic, and the movie has such a wicked sense of humour about the absurdity of the situations Patrick finds himself in that one can’t help but laugh. It’s only after it’s over that the true horror of the film begins to creep in.
Patrick Bateman is a monster, in every sense of the word, but so are the people in his circle. They aren’t literally killing people, but they all profit off the misery of others and enjoy themselves while doing it. Patrick is the predatory behaviour of the rich taken to its logical end point. Every time a politician talks about gutting health care, Patrick Bateman is there, smiling. The NRA may not have pulled the trigger on the mass shootings plaguing the US, but they bear a huge amount of the responsibility. To study the history of capitalism is to witness the rich kill the poor, usually indirectly, sometimes not. Already George W. Bush is becoming something of a nostalgic figure, but let us never forget the countless people who were killed in his war for oil. American Psycho is set amid the Reaganomics madness of the 1980s but it could just as easily take place today. Patrick Bateman is a timeless figure, a malevolent, petulant ghoul who will be around long after we’re gone.
The film does has a silver lining though – Patrick is miserable. Nothing in life brings him joy. He admits that the only identifiable emotions he feels are greed and disgust. I have trouble imagining Donald Trump feeling anything else. The pursuit of money is not the pursuit of happiness, and I think deep down we all know it. In the end, we may all be at the mercy of the Patrick Bateman’s of this world, but every time we do something selfless or just plain kind, we win, just a little bit.